Offseason decisions: Can the Pirates improve?

One of a series on dilemmas facing each major league teams this winter.

For a brief moment in 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates were baseball’s darlings. Through 100 games, the Pirates were in first place in the NL Central after not having had a winning season since 1992. They collapsed over the season’s final stretch and finished in fourth place in the NL Central, miles behind the Brewers and Cardinals, but many people took their early-season surge as a sign that the dark days at PNC Park were coming to an end. This is not necessarily the case.

The Pirates’ run to first place had a big smoke-and-mirrors component, and the club declined options on both Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm after the season ended. Doumit was one of the team’s best hitters last year, Maholm one of its best pitchers.

The Pirates do have a nice assembly of talent in the minor leagues, but none of their best prospects has played above Double-A. Their two best prospects, pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, haven’t thrown a big league pitch or pitched above Single-A, respectively. Without immediate help coming from the minors, there’s a good chance the 2012 Pirates will resemble the team of their last 62 games of 2011 rather than the first 100.

That’s not to say that the 2012 Pirates are hopeless. They have Andrew McCutchen, one of baseball’s most promising young outfielders, as well as Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez, who, with some progress in 2012, could form a solid supporting cast behind McCutchen on a good team.

There’s a long way for the Pirates to go even beyond that, though. They opened the offseason looking for a shortstop, first baseman, catcher and starting pitching. The Pirates have already begun to fill some of those holes, though they have quite a bit of work left to do this winter.

The positions already filled

In addition to turning down Doumit’s two-year option shortly after the World Series, the Pirates declined Ronny Cedeno’s 2012 option to open up the shortstop position. The club then moved surprisingly swiftly to bring Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes into the fold. On the whole, it’s fair to say that the moves mostly balance each other out.

Barajas represents a defensive upgrade over Doumit, for sure, but his bat is much worse, and the Pirates are starved for offense. He’s been a bit more durable than Doumit behind the plate recently, but he’s 36, so the Pirates might not be wise to count on his durability. Barajs will almost certainly be better than Michael McKenry , and so he makes a nice bridge for the Pirates while they wait for catching prospect Tony Sanchez, but he doesn’t really do much else.

If Barajas is a slight downgrade on Doumit, Barmes will probably be a slight upgrade over Cedeno. Cedeno hasn’t been a bad defensive player for the Pirates, but Barmes’ glove is a bit better by just about every advanced fielding metric. It’s worth noting, though, that after Troy Tulowitzki’s emergence in Colorado in 2007, Barmes didn’t play much shortstop until he got to Houston last year.

Barmes’ bat is a bit harder to predict. He’s generally been better than Cedeno at the plate (which isn’t hard to do, really), but PNC Park’s huge left-center field can be tough on right-handed hitters. Barmes hasn’t hit a homer to right field since 2009, according to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker. He could fall off the face of the planet offensively in 2012.

There’s a larger discussion to be had about whether the Pirates should be signing 33-year old shortstops to two-year deals or 36-year old catchers at all, but for the purposes of 2012, Barajas and Barmes should do a decent job approximating what the Pirates got from Doumit and Cedeno in 2011.

Of course, the Pirates weren’t all that good in 2011, and they really needed to improve this offseason, not tread water. If they’re not improving hugely at catcher or shortstop, they’re going to have to get better somewhere else.

Starting pitching

The Pirates pitching staff was pretty durable last year, with Maholm, Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens and Kevin Correia all throwing more than 150 innings. No one will mistake any of that quintet for Cy Young contenders, but having five above-replacement starters able to eat innings prevented having to waste too many starts on the Brian Burreses of the world.

Before 2012 even starts, the Pirates are in a bit of trouble here. As mentioned above, Pittsburgh declined its option on Maholm, making him a free agent, and Morton underwent hip surgery and probably won’t be ready until around Opening Day at the earliest. Ross Ohlendorf will likely be non-tendered. Brad Lincoln, one of the internal options to slide into the rotation, hasn’t been impressive in 17 starts scattered over the last two years.

Jeff Locke and Rudy Owens, the organization’s top two upper-level pitching prospects, probably aren’t close to being ready to pitch in the big leagues.

That means the Pirates are going to need to find starting rotation help this winter. They appear to be trying to turn Chris Leroux into a starter. The big righty made some serious strides as a reliever in 2011 thanks to a Charlie Morton-like tweak to his delivery, and he’s pitched well in a few starts in the Dominican League this winter.

Still, relying solely on him and Lincoln, plus hoping that Karstens can duplicate his career year without any peripherals indicating he’ll be able to do so, is a poor plan.

This could be a very bad pitching staff in 2012 without some outside help. The question at this point is whether any pitcher they bring in will be able to provide that help. Clint Hurdle’s Colorado connections have already led to Barmes as the Pirates’ starting shortstop, and the club is expressing interest in Aaron Cook. Can Jeff Francis be far behind?

Francis and Cook probably wouldn’t do much to alleviate the Pirates’ biggest pitching problem, which is that outside of McDonald they’re almost completely unable to strike anyone out.

Edwin Jackson might make a nice fit with the Pirates, but it’s hard to believe that they’d be able to lure a relatively high-profile free agent to Pittsburgh. Chris Capuano looked like another good option until the Dodgers snatched him up.

First base

For most of 2011, first base was a disaster position for the Pirates with Lyle Overbay struggling mightily. Then they added Derrek Lee at the trade deadline, and Lee set the world on fire just as the rest of the team fell off. The Pirates would like to keep Lee, and they offered him arbitration last week, but it seems pretty unlikely that he’ll accept or return to Pittsburgh under just about any circumstances.

That means Pittsburgh’s best internal option is Garrett Jones, who’s been squeezed out of the outfield with the emergence of Alex Presley. Jones can’t hit lefties at all, but the Pirates did a pretty good job limiting his exposure to them last year, and he rewarded them with a decent season. He’s a bit of a defensive liability at first base, though, and even if he doesn’t play much against lefties, he’s far from an ideal option.

The Pirates don’t really have an internal option as a platoon partner for him. The best choice at the moment may be Matt Hague. He had a decent season with Triple-A Indianapolis last year, but he hit only 12 homers in 594 Triple-A plate appearances. As a righty with a strong defensive reputation, he could be a decent complement for Jones. A Jones/Hague platoon wouldn’t set the world on fire and would be, at best, just a bit above replacement.

So do the Pirates want to find a full-time first baseman this winter, or just a platoon partner for Jones? They don’t have much in the way of first base prospects, though there’s a pretty good chance that Pedro Alvarez will be their starting first baseman at some point in 2013 or beyond if his bat comes around.

The free agent market might provide some help. Carlos Pena would give the Pirates some desperately needed pop, though he’s likely looking for a longer-term deal than the Pirates would like to give him. They could also roll the dice that Casey Kotchman’s breakout last year was something real and not a mirage, though that seems like a bad bet for a team like the Pirates.

The trade chips

If the solutions to the Pirates’ problems aren’t in the free agent market (and they’re probably not), the team may have enough in the cupboard to pull off a trade. With McCutchen emerging as a star at the big league level and Starling Marte tearing his way through Double-A last year, the Pirates have three tweener outfielders who aren’t really suited to play on the corners and who might hold more value to a team in need of a center fielder.

That trio is Tabata, Presley, and Gorkys Hernandez. None are perfect players, but Hernandez is excellent defensively, and Presley and Tabata both can cover ground and offer some offense. They’re all young with lots of team-controlled years ahead of them, which means they’re valuable both to the Pirates and to other clubs, and that might help the Pirates extract something of value.

The other option is to trade closer Joel Hanrahan. Between the Rangers’ trade deadline spending spree for Koji Uehara and Mike Adams and the ridiculous contracts being handed out to relievers this winter, now seems like a perfect time for a team in the Pirates’ position to be shopping a 40-save closer.

They would no doubt miss Hanrahan in 2012, but Neal Huntington has done a good job in recent years of pulling solid relievers off of the scrap heap, and Hanrahan is certainly the best player the Pirates can afford to trade.

The bigger question here for the Pirates is if now is the time to start making deals. The Pirates are still in talent acquisition mode, and it’s not exactly clear how everything they have is going to come together in the next few years. Dealing an asset for a specific need of the 2012 club may come back to bite them down the road if they’re not careful.

Conclusion

Pittsburgh won 72 games in 2011 and entered the offseason with a ton of holes to fill after declining Maholm’s, Doumit’s and Cedeno’s options. They’ve worked on remaking the roster, but Barajas and Barmes are hardly the players who are going to transform the Pirates into contenders. They still have work to do, especially in the rotation, and they have both the payroll flexibility to add free agents and some assets to trade, depending on the route they want to go.

Most likely, though, the Pirates are simply working this winter to provide a decent framework in hopes that the young players who failed to step forward in 2011 finally do so in 2012. That means Alvarez pulling himself together. That means Walker regaining the power stroke he had in 2010. That means Tabata staying healthy and carving out an offensive niche for himself. That means Morton and McDonald improving into more than just solid innings-eaters.

None of this is technically impossible, because these players are all generally younger and more talented than the guys the Pirates have relied on in the past, but it still looks like Pittsburgh is lining up a 20th straight losing season for 2012.

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Comments

  1. Marc Schneider said...

    I’m not a Pirates fan but it’s a disgrace.  The owners should be ashamed to show their faces in public.  Beautiful-publically funded-ballpark from what everyone says and they can’t put a decent product on the field.  Pittsburgh deserves a lot better than this.  You could say the same thing about Baltimore.

  2. Clark Addison said...

    No Marc, the disgrace will come in two seasons when they trade McCutchen for prospects and start the cycle all over again.

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